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Pain and Behaviour

One key factor that I address whenever I’m looking at any form of change of behaviour in a dog, is whether that dog is in pain.

Dogs are very good at disguising the common signs that you would associate with being in pain, such as crying or whimpering or reacting to bite.  It’s an animal instinct to hide such signs of weakness as it could mean life or death to their wolf ancestors and this instinct has carried over into the domesticated canine.  This means there are dogs walking around that are in a form of discomfort and we don’t even realise it.  

Changes to your dog’s behaviour relating to pain can be subtle to start. It’s a lot of little things that change so slowly they don’t become obvious at first glance. A dog who is also chronically in pain, has a sort of baseline where they more or less ‘get used to it’.

An example has actually been my own dog, Lulu.

I didn’t notice something was off until she started to become selectively reactive to dogs, which if you know Lulubell, who is a wet blanket, this was very odd behaviour. This escalated to her limping and not wanting to use her left leg. After several vet appointments, clinical massage and now physio, it’s been found that Lulu, unsurprisingly at nearing 11 years old and having led a very active life, has arthritis particularly in her left knee and suspected spondylosis of her spine.


Now that these issues have been identified and are being treated, managed, and rehabbed, Lulu has started to come back out of her shell. I feel a tonne of guilt though, me, a dog trainer, and I didn’t see what happening until it was screaming in my face.

In hindsight, the past six months she had been slowly retreating into herself, but it wasn’t until treatment was underway and the old Lulu was remerging that I realised how much she had changed before the more obvious signs had caught my attention to her pain.

I can’t believe I didn’t peg it sooner:

  • She’d started spending a lot more time upstairs and not being in her usual spot on the sofa in the living room.

  • It was getting harder to convince her to come downstairs to eat her dinner.

  • She stopped really playing with the other dogs and was a lot more sound sensitive than usual.

  • She just seems to have lost the pep in his step.

So, when working with clients and I suspect there is some form of issue of pain with a dog and their behaviour, I look out for and ask the owners if they have seen any of the following signs:

  • grumpier or more subdued, particularly in the evenings or after exercise

  • Loss of appetite

  • Noise sensitivity

  • Reluctance to jump into the car or go upstairs.

  • Aggression ‘out of nowhere’

  • Licking at certain areas of their body

  • Stiff or tense in how they carry themselves.

  • Pacing gait when walking and imbalance in weight distribution.

  • Becoming touch averse.

  • Increase in anxiety

If there are indeed signs of these behaviours, I then work through a plan of how to address them.

  • First, I have the owners consult their vet to help with diagnosing what is going on and getting a referral to a specialist if needed.

  • Reduce the dog’s exposure to things that can trigger them.  This can mean things like changing where I walk them and for how long and putting rugs down on slippery surfaces at home.

  • Start on a behaviour modification plan with creating a reward and motivation system that works for the dog, developing the behaviours we want and rebuilding any lost trust between owner and dog.

If nothing immediately obvious comes up at the vet, then I would suggest a specialist or physio have a look and be able to give an in-depth assessment of the dog and know their specialty inside out, same as you would initially see your GP and then get referred if it’s something needing specialist assessment. 

Vets are under a lot of time pressure and only have a limited time to be able to assess a dog and can struggle to find anything immediately obvious in that time frame.  This is normally due to adrenaline.  Let’s face it, most dogs find it stressful at the vets, and if they are having painful bits poked and prodded, adrenaline is going to surge.  Adrenaline is a great pain killer, so things that might highlight pain are masked.

Should specialist assessments also come up inconclusive and training to resolve the issue is not producing results, I would move to consult with the vet about requesting a pain trial for assessing undiagnosed pain and neurological pain. Pain trials need to be at least 6 – 12 weeks to fully allow the dog to have a chance to unlearn the behaviours they have developed by previously anticipating pain.  Reprogramming the brains after chronic pain takes time so just trying for one to two weeks isn’t providing enough time for behaviour that is second nature.

I hope this has given you some insight into pain and the influence it can have on behaviour.  If you’re concerned, have a chat with your vet.  Don’t beat yourself up if you think you have missed your dog in pain, they are masters of disguising it and when you are on the inside of it, rather than remotely looking in, it’s hard to see the wood through the trees.  Just look at me and Lulu. 


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